Self-driving vehicles and smart traffic systems have spawned yet another business for the growing transportation niche – a robotic tool that maintains the country’s roadways and infrastructure.
Pittsburgh-based RoadBotics is in the early stage of developing a market for a low-cost, smartphone-based monitoring solution that assesses road conditions for municipalities and contractors.
The Carnegie Mellon University spinout plans to make a formal announcement in January once it has closed on an initial round of funding, says CEO Mark DeSantis.
The tool addresses the problem of maintaining some 2.6 million miles of roads in the country at an annual cost of $8,000 to $10,000 per mile, he explains. There's an increasingly urgent need to understand how to manage these assets while reducing the skyrocketing cost of repairing them.
A serial entrepreneur and CMU professor, DeSantis has led several Pittsburgh companies including Apangea Learning, MobileFusion and more recently kWantera Inc. and kWantix.
Joining the Robotics team is Courtney Ehrlichman, co-founder and deputy executive director of the Traffic21 Institute, Technologies for Safe and Efficient Transportation (T-SET) and the new Mobility21 UTC. Benjamin Schmidt is the chief technology officer in charge of technology infrastructure and product development, and Christoph Mertz is the lead scientist on research and development.
Infrastructure will present a major challenge across the country in the next 20 years, DeSantis says. And the Robotics tool applies computer science concepts to the mundane challenge of managing that infrastructure while controlling costs.
The system works by attaching a smartphone to the windshield and pointing it out toward the road. The camera sees and records every crack, crevice and pothole and relays the information back to the local public works department where the repairs are assessed and addressed.
The technology originated through the work of Traffic21 and T-SET. The technology's potential quickly became obvious and the startup shifted into high gear, says Ehrlichman.
Roadbotics has been under development at the Robotics Institute for the last 4 years and was road-tested with municipalities in the Pittsburgh area.
Road managers, municipal officials and engineers were impressed by the technology. “People drooled over it,” Ehrlichman said. “It’s highly accurate and it works. It was one of those aha moments. It disrupts the system by allowing for continuous maintenance of the road rather than these cycles of 3 to 4 years.”
The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and Pennsylvania Turnpike have expressed interest, and the city of Pittsburgh is ready to sign on. The company plans to go national.
“We’re disrupting the current industry practices with an inexpensive sensor,” she added. “This is a lower cost alternative that allows you to continue to survey on an ongoing basis for maintenance.”